Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Koh Tao Time!


After far too much fun at the Full Moon party and in Koh Phangnon, we were ready to move on to the island of Koh Tao for some serious down time.

We had barely missed the fast boat so we had to wait at this cove to take the slow boat which we didn't really care about until just before boarding they came around handing out barf bags. We thought this was a joke for all the hung over full moon party goers. And in part it was, but mostly it was because the waters were really tumultuous from the monsoon season. For the 2 hour ride we were going over 12 foot swells that were literally rocking the boat 180 degrees. People were sick everywhere. They even had to turn off the engine at times to make it over the swells! It was by far the worst boat trip I have ever taken. DO NOT TAKE THE SONGSERM! Only use Lomprayah catamaran's! A lesson I do not need to learn twice and I hope I can prevent some of you out on the internet from having to learn! But it was all worth it when we arrived to the beauty that is Koh Tao!
We knew ahead of time we wanted to get certified to scuba dive while in Koh Tao. Koh Tao is the cheapest and most popular place in the world to get certified so when in Rome right?! I had done a little bit of research before our trip to narrow down the shop we wanted to use so we went and checked out my top choice first, Big Blue. We deemed them acceptable and signed up for housing and to finish our scuba course. We were to start the next day so we spent the rest of the day on the beach and watched the sunset.
Then we got a fresh fish dinner at the coziest place right on the beach! You can pick the fresh caught fish from a selection at the entrance to the restaurant and they grill it up for you and you get corn and potatoes too! Can't beat that!
After dinner we saw a group of newly certified scuba divers release lanterns and we admired them as they drifted into the sky.
Then we called it a night to get ready for our big scuba diving lesson!
Love Always,

A Full Moon at Koh Phangnon


Our flight from Chiang Mai to Koh Samui was delayed several hours so by the time we actually arrived in the islands it was almost sunset. The gulf of Thailand had been experiencing monsoons and the rain was causing closures and delays. Fellow travelers warned us their beach time was not at all sunny or they didn't even make it to the beach. We were a bit scared our time on the islands would be ruined be we stuck to the course! We had originally been debating if we would head straight to Koh Tao from Koh Samui or if we would take a two day stop over in Koh Phangnon to check out that island and experience the world famous Full Moon Party.

We did Make it to Koh Samui though! And at the Koh Samui airport you are shuttle from the airplace via these cute island life bus thingys! Since our flight was so late arriving we had missed the last boat to Koh Tao for the day, but we could still make our way to Koh Phangnon and so we decided the universe wanted us to experience Koh Phangnon and the full moon party. Sounds simple enough when you are reading it here but at the Koh Samui airport you are bombarded with salesman trying to take you here or there for a commission. It's hard to even learn about all the boat transport available because everyone just wants their commission, not what's the best trip for you. We made this mistake only twice before we learned to ask around multiple places for the correct news. But we had genuinely missed the boat to Koh Tao and didn't want to spend the night in Koh Samui so we boarded onto a sunset boat ride over to Koh Phangnon.

We were over the moon to be on the islands and the weather was great! Finally, the relaxing part of the trip! After so much activity and bouncing around we were ready to fall into island life. (Cheap) rooms were pretty booked up with the full moon party the next night but we only had to walk around for maybe 20 minutes before we found a bungalow with a price we were willing to pay ($20 US a night) with a room we were willing to sleep in. (Things can get pretty run down since it's party central).
Sunset from our bungalow:

We put our bags down and headed out to check out the town. We grabbed some food stand snacks and enjoyed the beach but it quickly became apparent that every night is a full moon on Koh Phangnon. We made some new friends - one KGB! - before calling it a night to make sure we had enough energy to enjoy the actual full moon party the next night. After a good nights rest we meandered the whole two blocks down to the beach and spent the day reading, swimming, and relaxing on the sunny sandy beach.

Enjoying fresh fruit smoothies on the beach! Notice how big the beach is for later in this post!

It was a great way to 'recharge our batteries' and we were immediately in love with island life. As the day wore on everyone was buzzing about the full moon party. Stages began to be set up in the water and dance floors, DJ's and vendor stands were all assembled. People were being shuttled to the island from neighboring islands and everyone began donning their new and obnoxious neon outfits. Then out came the day glow paint 'tattoos', fire jump ropes, and of course buckets. We even bought some of the obligatory neon gear and got all set for the Full Moon party. Here we are ready to rock and roll.

First stop was to get a bucket.

The traditional bucket is made of a fifth of your alcohol of choice with a mixer and even a splash of the red bull M-150 which is too strong to be exported and sell for five US dollars. There are rows an rows of vendors selling buckets. all have the same product at the same price. To differentiate their product they cater to name or countries. I guess some people are more likely to buy from a vendor displaying their name or flag or from a place where you get a free hug with purchase. Matilda isn't a common enough name for me to get into that hype! Buckets are intended to be shared but in the land of Westerners at play, everyone drinks their own. I managed to find a place selling mojito buckets which weren't great but pleased me better than red bull buckets would have!

At the mojito bucket stand we made friends with a group of Aussies. They were a lot of fun and enjoyed getting other tourists to stop and let them day glow paint them. Here's a random tourist getting a pizza day glow paint tattoo on his belly courtesy of our Aussie friends.

Then we parted ways and we watched the fire jump ropers and fire hoola-hoop jumping for a while.

The beach was quickly packed (look at all those people!! Not sure where they all came from, the island was not that busy!) and the night was over in a blink of an eye.

After more buckets than were necessary, hours of dancing, and late night street food it was off to bed.
Love Always,

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ciao Chiang Mai


After a sleepy morning we got up and had lunch at our favorite spot in Chiang Mai, Heuan Phen. their lunch spread is great! The place is packed with locals and the dishes are smaller so it's a bit like tapas and you can order several things to get a taste of the Northern style foods and fill your belly. You wont be disappointed here! I think we ate there 3 times in total and weren't once disappointed. I of course finished my food in Northern Thailand with my favorite Northern Dish the Kow Soy (and a Thai Iced Tea of course!) and Dale enjoyed chicken satay and BBQ ribs, yummy! Then it was off to the airport to head to Southern Thailand but I have just a few more bits of Chiang Mai I wan to share before we say ciao to Chiang Mai.
Of course one of these bits is a temple! :) Wat Chedi Luang is ruins of a Lanna-style chedi dating to 1441 and it is where the Emerald Buddha was originally located. The ruins are quite beautiful and it was interesting to see a temple of a different style since this one is not covered in gold nor does it have bright colors and dark wood everywhere. The brick and stucco was an interesting change of take in.
On the temple grounds are of course many Buddhas but most notably a beautiful and fairly large sized reclining Buddha. This one doesn't compare to the reclining Buddha in Bangkok but is magnificent in it's own way. We learned when the Buddha is in the reclining position like this it's the final stage before entering nirvana. The hair on this one is particularly Lanna style.
I also wanted to share this nice picture of Dale enjoying his favorite Thai beer Chang. Which we have decided must be pronounced with extra emphasis on the 'a' so it sounds like 'Chaaaaaang'. 
Big chaaaaaangs for all! Okay, now we can venture to the beach! Ciao Chiang Mai, until next time!
Love Always,

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and the Night Bazaar


For our last day in Chiang Mai we took a trip to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep just west of Chiang Mai in the mountainside. The locals say you haven't seen Chiang Mai if you haven't seen this Wat, they consider it very much apart of the culture of Chiang Mai. So it was a must see for us, even though we were getting a bit sick of temples. According to my Lonely Planet Thailand guide book:
The temple was first established in 1383 under King Keu Naone and enjoys a fantastically mystical birth story. A visiting monk from Sukhothai instructed the Lanna king to take the twin of a miraculous relic (enshrined at Wat Suan Dok) to the mountain and establish a temple. The relic was mounted on the back of a white elephant, which was allowed to wander until it 'chose' a site on which a wat could be built to enshrine it. The elephant stopped and died at a spot on Doi Suthep, 13 km west of Chiang Mai, where the temple was built in the Year of the Goat. ... The temple is famously photographed for it's gold-plated chedi, topped by a five tiered umbrella erected in honor of the city's independence from Burma and its union with Thailand. It is the temples chedi (and the sacred Buddha relic enshrined withing) not a resident Buddha image that attracts the majority of worshipers. The chedi has many Lanna-style characteristics, including the gate around the base, the redented square pedestal and the octagonally shaped bell tower. Flanking the chedi are several within containing Lanna-style Buddhas with their distinctive fat facial and body features, two upturned footpads, shortened chest bands and lotus-shaped topknot. 
The temple was just as beautiful in person as the guide book made it out to be. We were lucky enough to get a very sunny day and the temple of gold was very shiny making it very impressive to look at.
The surrounding Buddha statues as well as offering stations were something to take in as well. I bought offerings for both Dale and I and we had a peaceful Buddhist moment. We each took a moment to light our incense and candle, and lay down our lotus in front of the Buddha statues while saying a little prayer. 
Then we walked the temple grounds and admired the giant gongs and rows of bells.
We sat for a while overlooking the city of Chiang Mai from above. The temples in town are beautiful as well but I thought this was the most impressive. Partly because of the pilgrimage to get there and partly because of the chedi.
On our way back into town we stopped at a hillside tribe village. Chiang Mai is so far north it is considered part of the golden triangle with the neighboring regions of Burma, Vietnam, and Laos. The golden triangle was, from the 1920's until only several years ago when Afghanistan surpassed, the world's leading producer of opiates, mainly heroin. I didn't really know this when I was planning our trip to Chiang Mai but our driver on the way back into town from the temple stopped us at the hillside tribe village and walked us around and told us the history of the people as well as how to make the drug. Random.
The Thai King has been doing an excellent job of helping the tribal people get educated and earn incomes in other ways. So the drug culture is dying down but walking through the village you can definitely see the effects of long term drug use in the faces of the people. Most notably in the village, we saw this rooster in a cage being showed off for bets on his upcoming illegal cock fight. Our driver told us this is very illegal but since the mountain sides are so difficult to travel through, the people have enough warning when the cops are coming to disband and not get caught and so the continue with the cock fighting. Poor little rooster.
Back in the city that evening we went for dinner at a fancier restaurant on the riverside aptly named The Riverside. The views are great along the water with all the lights and the reflections.
The food was great too! Dale got a curry cooked in a coconut and I got the Northern regions specialty Kow Soy. Both were great! I could go for some Kow Soy now, I loved the curry with noodles and the pickled vegetables to take the edge off the heat. Yummy!!

After dinner we walked back to our hotel through the night bazaar. We weren't quite ready to begin acquiring souvenirs to carry around since we had just over two weeks in Thailand still but there were more than enough stalls to walk through and haggle with if you feel so inclined.
One food stall we spotted was selling fried insects!!! That's something I genuinely never thought I would see.
Here's a close up on the fried larvae, cockroaches, and grasshoppers.
Not only did I think I would never see this, I didn't think I would ever try them! But these guys in the picture below were at the fried insect booth too and they bought some and harped on Dale and I until we took the plunge. And I wish I would say it was gross and disgusting but I have to report back, fried insects are actually alright. I wanted to hate them, but they just taste like tiny chips really. After eating the bugs these boys hijacked us and before we knew it we were drinking red bull vodka buckets and dancing to Adele all night at Zoe in Yellow.
This random whirlwind of a night might just be my favorite from the whole trip. Who doesn't love making new gay besties over fried insects?!
Love Always,

Treking Zen


Before embarking to Thailand I had signed Dale and I up for a 24 hour Buddhist retreat where we would learn to meditate and have a chance to discuss Buddhism with Monks. I was really excited for a chance to learn first hand about a lifestyle and religion I have never experienced. I couple days before the retreat was to begin I checked the website (http://www.monkchat.net/index.php) and found out our session had been cancelled. I was, and still am, disappointed I didn't get this experience. I suppose I'll have to return another time! Not to waste our time, we decided to take a one day trek instead. The company we booked the trek with really cram packs your day full of activities. It wasn't this company but this is almost the same itinerary we had: http://www.protravelchiangmai.com/tour-detail.php?id=13221206882953

First stop was at an orchid farm. It was neat to see all the orchids in so many colors hanging in rows but honestly not a worthwhile stop.
Second stop was to visit hill tribes. I'd always seen the Karen Long Neck tribes on National Geographic and thought it would be interesting to see in person. I was wrong. It was sad. I felt like I was at a zoo and these human were on display. It made me feel sick. I'm almost 100% certain this 'tribe' which included four different tribes in one fenced off pay to enter location is entirely a tourist scam. No doubt they do not indeed live here full time. But the Karen tribe obviously really does wear the bronze rings around their necks and ankles. Apparently they originally started doing this to keep tigers from attacking them. Now it is part of their culture and religion. Well, it was a part of their religion for centuries until modern Christian missionaries have come along and given them money and food and built churches and in-doctrine them into Christianity. It's nice to see these people getting help but I can't help but feel a bit sad they are loosing their history. I bought a cheesy crappy necklace from them to try to help them, it didn't really soothe my soul at all though. Needless to say, I was ready to move on to stop number three.
Third stop was to ride elephants! We boarded our elephants and went on a ride around the property down to a river and back. It was a little bit scary. These elephants are so big I feel like if they really wanted to run they could haul! The trainers have sticks and hook into the elephants ears to steer them and slap them on their tushies to get them to move. I'm not sure the elephants are treated the best. They seemed tired and hungry. :( At the en we got to feed them pineapples and they really liked that.
 Dale and I got to ride the Momma elephant and in the picture below her son is in front of us!
We paused at the elephant riding place for a lunch of fried rice and pineapples and then is was off to stop number four, a 'trek' up to waterfalls. the hike was not too long or too strenuous although some of the other people on the tour seemed to think otherwise. The waterfalls were very pretty and refreshing though and it was nice to beat the heat in the water for a bit.
After we hiked back to the truck it was off to stop number five, of white water rafting and bamboo rafting. I've done my fair share of rafting while living in Colorado so the novelty wasn't so big for me. Almost everyone else on the tour had never been before. I always enjoy a nice ride on the water though and looking up at the shore to appreciate the scenery from a different vantage point. There were of course oar wars too which were enjoyed by some. :)
The bamboo rafting, I give a big thumbs down. It was a whole five minutes of riding on the defunct 'raft' you can see to the left of me in the picture below. You share it with three other people and ours was not made very well and we did not in fact float very well. The water, while on the bamboo raft, came up to my waist. I was not amused. Five minutes of that was more than enough.
Then it was back to town to end our whirlwind day of adventure. Overall, it was a great way to do a whole lot in a little bit of time. If you have time at your leisure, I would take the time to do each bit in a more quality environment. But this way was almost comical and so entirely touristy!
Love Always,

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cooking in Chiang Mai


The next day in Chiang Mai I decided I wanted to take a cooking class. Dale surprised me and decided to take it with me! What a great guy he is. We signed up for a full day course from Baan Thai Cookery School.  The course started with a short walk to a local market where we were taught what all of the things for sale were and bought the supplies we needed for our meals. This was helpful for figuring out what we were eating and seeing! I didn't expect there to be such different fruits and vegetables but they are so entirely different you wouldn't even recognize anything. 
Above is the market we bought our eggs from and below a close up of snacks like fried pig ears, wasabi peas, and candied peanuts.
Here I am at our last stop in the market showing off all the produce I was assigned to carry home, only a lot of elephant ear mushrooms! This stall had fresh fish getting descaled, pre-made curry, and a whole lot of fresh fruit! Almost everything looked really good!
Then it was back to the school to learn to cook. The school is fairly primitive by first world standards but very nice by Thailand standards. Propane tanks fueled our wok stations. I think I'm a fairly advanced cook but somehow I've never acquired a wok and this left me desperately wanting a wok!
The cooking was always fully hands on and somehow in a class of 9, Dale always ended up doing the hardest work like soaking the rice in coconut milk or grinding the curry down to a paste. Our teacher who is also the owner of Bann Thai kept telling us that Thai people's secret to being sexy is spicy food. She said many times we needed to eat, "more spicy, more sexy". Dale and I still quote her! It was too funny.
I learned to make: chicken pad thai, chicken in coconut milk (pictured below), spring rolls, green curry with chicken (pictured below the picture below) and mango with sticky rice. Dale learned: pork red curry, hot and sour prawn soup, spring rolls, chicken pad thai, and deep fried banana. 
 Everything turned out fantastic! I have to say learning to make the curry was the most informative and delicious. Also, learning how to make sticky rice in the land of sticky rice was great also!
Overall, I would say the course was well worth the cost considering you eat all day. If you already know how to cook basic thai food, this is probably not the course for you. You can view all the pictures from the day at Bann Thai Cookery School's website.
Love Always,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Buddhist Chiang Mai


I don't really know much about Buddhism but I do know they make beautiful temples and statues. The style is so completely different than anything you see in and other religion. Chiang Mai has a whole lot of temples within her borders, something like 300. We spent our first day in Chiang Mai just walking the 'temple trail' in the old city which is walled off in a big square maybe one square mile or so. Inside the old city we saw more temples than I can count and part of the reason I've been putting off writing this for months is because I knew I would probably butcher the temple names. But, to the best of my knowledge, here's the truth about the Buddhist temples of Chiang Mai. 

First stop was Wat Chedi Luang which dates back to the 14th century and was the original home of the Emerald Buddha, now a national treasure housed in Bangkok. I love the steep roof and all the intricate gold work.
Inside Wat Chedi Luang are beautiful buddha statues.
Next stop was Wat Phra Singh which is Chiang Mai's most visited temple and is a beautiful example of Lanna (the native people of Chiang Mai) art an architecture. 
Monks walking to the bells where they swipe their hand along them as they walk down the row saying prayers. We learned one of the things Buddhists believe is that if you can hear bells you are still alive so the noise is a reminder of your mortality. 

I really liked the reflecting pond with a small gold buddha looking out at the water from under the shade of the New Years decorated tree. Such a colorful and peaceful place.
Below is the ubosot which is the holiest prayer room and this one clearly displays the Lanna architectural with it's three tiered roof and intricate carvings. We were there just after New Year and just before Thai New Year so that is what all the decorations are for.
In the picture below you can see Thong Thip, the buddha, inside of Wat Phra Singh and this Wat dates back to 1345 and has royal ties.
Finally we ended our day admiring the Anusawari sam kasat, best explained by our guide book:
 Proudly wearing 14th-century royal garb, the bronze three kings monument commemorates the alliance forged between the three northern Thai-Lao kings. The statues mark one of the cities spiritual centers and have become a shrine to local residents, who regularly leave offerings of flowers, incense and candles at the bronze feet in return for blessings from the powerful spirits of the three kings. - Lonely Planet Thailand 13th Edition.
It was a very enriching day learning about the Buddhists and admiring Chiang Mai.
Love Always,